Old Socialist …
The placement of an essay about the Homeless Crisis published under the rubric of ‘Opinion Life & Arts’ is about a self-serving diminution, on the pressing question of Homelessness. Add to this the headline and sub-headline:
Headline: Why homelessness is still with us
Sub-headline: It is not selfishness but an innocent trust in the outcomes of the market
But note that Janan Ganesh is the almost perfect would be boulevardier, to opine on such a pressing issue? He begins his commentary by a show of his credentials, as that ‘would be boulevardier’:
It is a conversation I have had in Washington, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and, on three occasions, in San Francisco. Someone local, surmising that I am not, apologises for the homelessness problem. I mumble that it is tragic indeed, but that I have seen as bad elsewhere. (In OECD countries, I haven’t.)
After a while, it becomes awkwardly evident that we are at cross-purposes. What aggrieves the other person is that the rough-sleepers are here. The city is a soft touch and therefore a beacon to them. With luck, someone will shoo all the tarpaulin villages out of sight. That a more universal answer exists, starting with “w” and ending with “elfare state”, is a point that I am too good a guest to ever press.
Such cold hearts. Such greed. But then some of these interlocutors are more prolific donors of time and cash to charitable causes than I have ever been. Some are progressive-to-moderate on most questions of the hour. Some are friends of mine, and wouldn’t be if I held them to be brutes or misers.
Mr. Ganesh is just one of the members of an exclusive club of the well traveled cognoscenti: he feels he needs to intervene on the pressing question of ‘the undeserving poor’ .
The problem isn’t malevolence. It is innocence. Theirs is a sincere belief in the market as a more or less meritocratic system: an audit of one’s work ethic and character. Whatever outcomes it throws up are therefore, however sad, a kind of Revealed Truth.
If you believe there is a solid link between deserts and reward, you must believe — you must — that rough-sleepers have it coming. You have left yourself no room for the role of luck in human affairs: of mental illness, of birth into a hopeless family, of dire education or mid-life tumbles down the potholes of circumstance. You are guilty of epic, almost operatic naivety. But you are not vindictive, per se. You are not selfish. You are Candide, not Scrooge.
The Candide of ‘cultivate your garden’, or of Dr. Pangloss’ ‘best of all possible Worlds’ ? Mr. Ganesh ascribes to Candide the singularity of a trope?
The reality of Thatcher/Reagan brand of the Neo-Liberal Swindle does not have any place in the rhetorical underbrush of the Mr. Ganesh’s History Made To Measure. The Political toxin of that Neo-Liberalism has been further exacerbated by The Pandemic.
On the Question of The Enlightenments:
The Enlightenment idea of the individual, which was English, Dutch and French before it was American, is filtered through that sieve of realism. The political scientist Eileen McDonagh has shown that monarchies are often the pioneers of welfarism. Lots of social reformers were blue-bloods who viewed meritocracy through a jaundiced eye. Think Bismarck or Shaftesbury. Think, for that matter, Franklin Roosevelt.
How does Mr. Ganesh end his commentary? Via an inside glimpse, of the World of the Boulevardier/Cognoscenti, who views what the degradation of poverty looks like, from inside an Uber, not a Taxi! Ganesh offers wistfulness, within the comfort of his privilidge.
In the raw DC winter of 2018, my companion for the evening nodded with concern at a beggar as our Uber passed him in the sludge. Then, in a sorrow-not-anger kind of way, he wondered how a man could have made such self-defeating “choices”. It is marrow-deep, this belief, and a rare feature of the New World that I won’t miss.